Call it a longer, even stranger trip. David Browne’s So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead (Da Capo, out April 28th), takes a different tact when chronicling one of the rock’s greatest and most enduring bands. Using new interviews with surviving members as well as Dead friends, colleagues, and family members, Browne, an RS contributing editor, centers each chapter around a significant or pivotal day or moment in the band’s epic saga. In this exclusive excerpt, that moment is the band’s 15th anniversary shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York — a run of concerts that confirmed not only the band’s growing fan base but also the growing industry clout of the Dead itself.
Even the union workers agreed: part of the wall had to go. After all, the Dead had a slew of shows about to begin and their recording consoles had to be installed. If it meant a portion of a stairwell had to be removed—in a building that had just been given landmark status by the city of New York—so be it. On the occasion of the Dead’s fifteenth anniversary, nothing and no one could stand in their way, not even Radio City Music Hall.
Just over a week before, the load-in had begun for the Dead’s eight-night stand at the six-thousand-seat venue. On many levels the sight would have been unimaginable several years before. The venerable midtown building had opened its doors nearly fifty years before, in 1932, and by 1980 any tourist who came through the city seemed to be legally required to attend Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas and Easter shows with the Rockettes or see one of the family-themed movies it hosted. But by the late seventies, with New York City in fiscal freefall, Radio City’s future was suddenly shaky; movie attendance dropped, and plans to convert it into an office building or parking lot loomed.
Thankfully the interior of the building was granted landmark status in 1978, and its famed art-deco lobby and other interior design elements were refreshed for $5 million. During talks to save the building the idea of booking pop acts came up, and by the fall of 1980 Radio City Music Hall had presented one major pop star, Linda Ronstadt. Now it would host an entirely different kind of beast, the Grateful Dead, who were about to settle in for eight nights, October 22 to 31 (with the nights of October 24 and 28 off).
The band’s clout became evident right away, when Deadheads converged upon Rockefeller Center, some camping out, and snapped up almost thirty-six thousand tickets. In an ambitious move that recalled the special screenings of The Grateful Dead Movie , the last night, Halloween, would be broadcast live by a closed-circuit feed to fourteen movie theaters around the country; in addition, all the anniversary shows, both at Radio City and preceding ones at the Warfield in San Francisco, would be recorded for a live album or two. The entire undertaking felt like an event, especially when word trickled out that the band would be playing its first acoustic set in a decade.